It wasn’t the first time she had directed such a comment at me. Thank goodness my teachers soon moved me to a different reading class where the teacher was nicer, so I felt less pressured. As a result, I made better grades in that class.
Fast forward to middle school when I was frequently called “airhead” or “space cadet” jokingly by my friends. I started to believe I was and that something must be wrong, but I didn’t know what. Really, I just thought I was slower mentally and possibly stupid. I seemed to have to work much harder than others to get good grades, and it took me longer to finish tests and assignments. After straining to focus so much in school or focus on homework, I got headaches. I also seemed to “miss” or “forget” about half the things people said in conversations and didn’t know why I was different.
Then one evening when I was a freshman in high school, my mom entered my room, excited about something. She told me how she had just watched an Oprah show about ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and how she thought that might be what I had. She said that could explain why I had trouble focusing and remembering things. (This was in the mid-90s when many people were still discovering ADD and ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.)
So she scheduled an appointment for me to see a psychologist who asked my mom a series of questions, then asked me a series of questions. Then it was official. I had inattentive ADD (as opposed to hyperactive ADHD).
I remember the psychologist saying that people with ADHD/ADD are very intelligent, but their thoughts have trouble connecting. She explained it in a way I could understand. She said, “The problem is not intelligence. It’s that there aren’t enough neurotransmitter chemicals called serotonin or norepinephrine that are produced in your brain. These chemicals flow from the nerve cell receptors in your brain to help your thoughts connect, so when there is not enough serotonin, thoughts can become disconnected or scattered. This can make it difficult for you to focus for longer periods, or difficult to remember daily tasks like where you put your homework.”
It was like someone finally understood me! Someone who didn’t see me as slow or stupid but as having a real mental condition unrelated to intelligence. It was an incredible relief knowing this and that there was treatment available.
My psychologist told me that complex carbohydrates actually help ADD symptoms (that explained my love for carby foods), as well as vitamin E, B vitamins, and adequate amounts of sleep. The more tired I was, the worse my ADD symptoms could be.
Mom wanted to have me try medication, so we experimented until I found one that worked best for me. Once on medication, I noticed an almost immediate difference in my thought clarity. It was like the fog had been lifted, and life became easier. My schoolwork became easier to do, and I finished it faster. My grades improved, and I felt that I fit in better socially because I could pay attention longer and retain more.
I Wished I Had Known
While on meds, I asked my Mom, “Is this what it’s like to be a normal person?’” She told me that I was normal, but this is what it’s like for someone who doesn’t have ADD. It was a “wow!” moment.
I wished I had known that I had ADD years ago, before my second-grade teacher called me back to earth. And before I struggled to make good grades and got headaches. Or before my friends called me a space cadet.
Knowing my “problem” was a real neurological condition and how treatment helped my symptoms was a major boost to my 14-year-old fragile and forming identity. Knowing I wasn’t “slow” or “dumb.” Knowing I wasn’t the only one with this condition. My psychologist told me that one in 20 people have ADD/ADHD and that it’s inherited.
Now that I knew my condition, I could learn to cope with it. My psychologist suggested coping methods like writing down lists of important things to remember or to get done and checking them off (this was before smartphone calendars and reminders). She said to try to listen longer, and when I catch my mind drifting, to make an effort to refocus. She suggested staying organized too and gave some specific examples. These things helped me tremendously academically and socially—not only in high school but throughout my adult life.
Helping Your Child
Unfortunately, I think many parents incorrectly “misdiagnose” their kids, thinking their child is just hyper, unfocused, acting out, or mentally slow. Or they might think their child “doesn’t listen” or remember things because they are careless, lazy or disorganized. Meanwhile, the child grows up with those labels, believing that is just how and who they are. This is unfortunate for the child who actually has ADHD/ADD and could get help for it.
The best thing a parent can do for their child if they show any symptoms is to take them to a professional who can give them an accurate diagnosis. Coming from someone who has been there, I can attest that diagnosis and treatment could drastically improve a child’s life—their sociability, grades, self-esteem, and future. It certainly did mine.
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Vanessa Pham writes from Texas.